SOROCABA, Brazil - As a police helicopter circled overhead to keep a watchful eye on scores of anti-World Cup demonstrators outside the stadium, over 5,000 fans turned out to watch Japan’s first practice session Sunday, a day after the Asian champions arrived in Brazil for soccer’s showpiece tournament.
Huge cheers went up as the likes of AC Milan attacker Keisuke Honda and Manchester United’s Shinji Kagawa came up the steps from the dressing room and walked out onto the sunbathed pitch at Sorocaba Municipal Stadium.
Looking relaxed after arriving from a training camp in Florida on Saturday, the players greeted local Japanese schoolchildren and posed for photos on the pitch before they were put through their paces by coach Alberto Zaccheroni.
“It’s pleasing (for all the fans to come),” Kagawa, who has scored in Japan’s last two warm-up games for the finals, told Kyodo News after the practice.
“We want to go into the first game motivated and in first-class condition both physically and mentally so it is great to get this kind of support from everybody and the Japanese fans.”
“The important stuff starts from now. All my body is thinking about is the first game.”
The players may have looked relaxed, but Cerezo Osaka striker Yoichiro Kakitani warned Japan’s Group C rivals that the Blue Samurai have not come to Brazil for a vacation.
“I have been to Brazil before and know how passionate the country is about soccer but we are not on vacation,” Kakitani told Kyodo ahead of the team’s arrival in Brazil. “We have to show (fans) the brilliance of Japanese soccer.”
“I think our toughest game is going to be the first one against Cote d’Ivoire and I think it is the same for all the teams,” said Kakitani, referring to the team’s opener in Recife on Saturday.
“Whoever you play the motivation is high for the first game and I think it will be a difficult one.”
There was a 150-strong police presence, with some officers on horseback, as peaceful protests against the high cost of soccer’s showpiece tournament were held outside the ground. Some demonstrators held banners telling soccer’s world governing body to “go home.”
Protests have taken place in other parts of Brazil with demonstrators demanding more government spending on health, education and subsidized transport.
Japan, playing in its fifth consecutive World Cup, beat Costa Rica 3-1 and also came from behind to edge Zambia 4-3 in exhibition games in Florida and has arrived in Brazil on the back of a five-game winning streak.
After playing Cote d’Ivoire, the Blue Samurai take on Greece on June 19 in Natal, before wrapping up the group phase against Colombia on June 24 in Cuiaba.